Collaborative teams spark the most powerful creativity. So Walter Isaacson tells us, repeatedly, in The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. The power of teams was true in any form, whether it was like minds coming together through common interest, such as MIT’s legendary Tech Model Railroad Club; government-funded corporate research such as the transistor’s creation at Bell Labs; or start-up teams that produced profitable companies (think Intel, Apple, Microsoft, and Google). It is collaboration that drives innovation, with focused minds bringing different backgrounds and mindsets to advance ideas creatively and imaginatively, he says. Forget the Eureka moment. The solo inventor is a myth. It is all about the team.
Isaacson, thus, finds himself pushing back against a narrative published a few months earlier by Joshua Wolf Shenk in Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs. Whether it’s Matt Stone and Trey Parker of South Park fame or Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak of Apple, creativity is at its best when two creative minds spar back and forth.
Of course Isaacson includes Jobs and Wozniak in The Innovators (let’s not forget that Isaacson also is the author of the authorized biography of Jobs). He includes other collaborative pairs, such as Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Paul Allen, Intel’s Gordon Moore and William Shockley, and even 19th Century polymaths Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace. So I guess that means we should allow Shenk’s two-person ideal to be a subset of Isaacson’s multi-person ideal.
But Isaacson also has a few solo inventors in there. One he summarily dismisses, John Vincent Atanasoff. Well, Isaacson acknowledges that Atanasoff could fairly be said to have created the first truly working computer, a creative accomplishment that shouldn’t be overlooked. Isaacson explicitly does overlook him, however, in favor of John Mauchly, who with J. Presper Eckert and others built the ENIAC, the Army-funded computer that can fairly be said to have led to future computing innovations. Atanasoff doesn’t count, Isaacson argues, because Atanasoff’s computer was never used and was eventually forgotten.
Okay. So apparently creativity doesn’t count if someone else doesn’t come along and improve on it. But let’s look at another innovator in Isaacson’s book, Tim Berners-Lee. He created what you’re currently reading this blog post on, the World Wide Web. Now he completed it while working with others at CERN, but he developed the basic architecture completely on his own.
An even stronger case of solo innovation in Isaacson’s book is Linus Torvalds, idolized by open-source geeks around the world. Torvalds, while slaving away in his parent’s basement in Finland as a teenager, developed the Linux kernel. He wasn’t part of a local computer club, or a government-funded commercial lab, or a Silicon Valley start-up. He just stayed in his basement and coded. His work opened the way to a universal operating system that anyone could use to bypass commercially locked down systems from Apple, Microsoft, and others. Torvalds even had a Eureka moment, because he didn’t set out at first to enable a new operating system; he was tweaking code to make certain operating tasks easier for him and the epiphany struck, that his work could lead to an operating system kernel.
Now Isaacson might argue that Torvalds still is an example of collaboration, because he engineered his kernel for existing GNU code that itself was crowdsourced as a derivative of UNIX. That’s a fair point. Isaacson might also argue Torvalds’ Eureka moment doesn’t count, because he had already been putting so much time and effort into what he eventually envisioned. But I would argue that is the case for every Eureka moment. The term comes to us from the Greek scholar Archimedes, who is said to have shouted it while in the tub, as he realized his body caused the water level to rise; thus he developed a theory of water displacement. It must be noted that he had for a long time been noodling on just this type of mathematical notion. (It must also be noted that some maintain Archimedes in his excitement ran down the streets of Syracuse naked; alas, there is no tale in The Innovators that is so amusing.)
So what is the lesson to be learned here? Is creativity at its most powerful in groups? In pairs? Alone? I would argue–and I mean no disrespect to the authors here–the lesson to be learned is that if you want to get a nonfiction book contract, you must take a strong position, preferably a counter-intuitive one, and then push hard on your thesis at the expense of evidence to the contrary. That doesn’t mean the books don’t make good points or aren’t worth reading. I would recommend reading Isaacson’s book, as you’ll see in my Goodreads review.)
I work with inventors now in my day job, including some of the people profiled in Isaacson’s book. They are quick to tell me of how important collaboration was to them. Isaacson’s thesis is not a false one. Collaboration can in fact be a very powerful driver of creativity.
But I also have worked over the years with a lot of artists. Some, such as musicians, often thrive in collaboration. (John Lennon and Paul McCartney make up one of the pairs profiled in Shenk’s book.) An untold number of children’s books have been published that are collaborations between an illustrator and an author. And even someone like me, a writer alone in his basement (albeit in Alexandria, Virginia, not in Finland), finds his prose worked on by others, whether it be a local writer’s group, students in a writing class, or an editor or publisher.
That said, I think that when you look across the broad swath of artistic masterpieces, the solo artist is predominant. So what should we conclude here? That in the arts, creativity is at its best a solo endeavor, and that in the inventive sciences, creativity is at its best in groups? I would argue that the volume of evidence suggests that those are the predominant paths in those fields, but that there is no one most powerful path to creativity.
Thus endeth the rant. Let me conclude with a plug: I’d love for you to join me at the Florida Creativity Weekend in Sarasota, Florida. I’ll be leading a ninety-minute workshop on March 21st titled “Putting Your Whole Brain to Work” that touches on elements of solo and collaborative creativity across arts and sciences. I won’t be lecturing, however; my workshops are hands-on, with fun activities to get your brain working. You’ll save 20 percent on registration through February 15th; see their Facebook page for details!
[NOTE: Usually I only use my own photos on this blog. For this entry I chose to be collaborative, using images shared through Creative Commons; click on the image to go to the original.]